Oscar MicheauxAug 21st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1884-1951 Oscar Micheaux was a pioneer writer and filmmaker during the formative years of the motion picture industry. Over a period of more than 20 years, he wrote, produced, directed, distributed, and marketed more than 30 groundbreaking feature films oriented toward the African American audience.
From Porter to Pioneer
Micheaux was born outside Metropolis, Illinois, on January 2, 1884, the son of former slaves Calvin Swan Micheaux and Belle Willingham. After leaving home at the age of 16, Micheaux moved from one small Illinois town to another, finally landing in Chicago. He found work first as a shoeshine boy, then as a porter for the railroad. Assigned to the route between Chicago and Portland, Oregon, Micheaux decided that the wide-open spaces of the midwest offered promise, a place where a man without great assets could build a fruitful life through determination and hard work. Working inside the plush Pullman cars, he was inspired by the wealthy business passengers and their ease with money and commerce.
In 1905, Micheaux used his modest savings to purchase a piece of the South Dakota midwestern farmland he had admired so much. By 1910, he had expanded his holdings to 500 acres, and became convinced that the wisdom of his homesteading strategy would apply to the larger African American community. He began publishing a series of articles in the Chicago Defender that urged African Americans to follow his example and make a new life for themselves as homesteaders and farmers. But his own dream was already failing. His first wife, Orlean McCracken, left him soon after they were married, and unable to profit from working his land, he suffered a series of foreclosures between 1912 and 1914. Convinced that his experience, if not his homesteading, held value, Micheaux self-published an autobiographical novel entitled The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer in 1913, and sold copies door to door throughout the midwest and the south.
Micheaux earned enough proceeds to publish two more novels, in 1915 and 1917, and formed a new enterprise, the Western Book Supply Company. The second of these books, The Homesteader, came to the attention of two African American filmmakers from Nebraska, the brothers Nobel and George Johnson, who approached him with a proposal to make a feature film out of the story. But Micheaux wanted creative control of his story and decided he could make the movie himself, despite his limited resources and lack of experience. Setting a pattern he would follow for the rest of his career, Micheaux gathered together a small group of investors and employed every method he could devise—volunteer actors, no rehearsals, improvised sets, single takes—to keep the film within its miniscule budget. He succeeded, and the film version of The Homesteader was released in 1919.
A Life in Film
Following the strategy he had developed when he sold his novel door to door, Micheaux distributed the film directly to theaters in African American communities, paving the way for The Homesteader to earn enough of a profit to finance another film, then another, and then another. For the next two decades, Micheaux made an average of two films a year. He also studiously cultivated the mystique of a Hollywood movie mogul, complete with fur coat, limousine, and a white chauffeur. The production values of his films were uneven at best, with poor acting mixed with good, and technical aspects often amateurish. But Micheaux’s films were groundbreaking in content. He portrayed Blacks in nonstereotypical roles, and addressed subjects such as interracial marriage that had been traditionally swept under the rug. He soon built a reputation for unflinching directness in his films. Micheaux demonstrated particular courage in 1921 when he made a movie no one else would. The Gunsaulus Mystery was the story of the infamous 1915 lynching in Marietta, Georgia, of Leo Frank, a young Jewish businessman accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl. By 1925, Micheaux could add star-maker to his resume when he launched the film career of famed African American stage actor Paul Robeson with a role in Body and Soul.
Censorship was commonplace during the 1920s and 1930s, and Micheaux’s films were banned time and again. But he had a way of turning these incidents to his advantage by taking a film that had been banned in one community and advertising the fact (“Sensational!” “Banned!”) in the next. Micheaux consistently proved himself to be an accomplished publicist, persuading the African American press, for instance, to treat his actors and actresses as major stars. He developed a keen sense of his audience, playing to a sense of drama and heroism in African Americans, which Blacks were anxious to see played out on screen. Micheaux’s sensationalized pictures met with frequent criticism as well, and he was often charged with following the common practice of casting light-skinned actors as heroes and dark-skinned actors as villains.
Despite his relative prominence, the financial barriers Micheaux faced when he began never disappeared. Even as an established producer, he was impelled to cut corners through strategies such as reusing shots from previous films in new ones. Revenues fell far short of expenses in 1928, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy. But three years later, Micheaux was back in business with new financial backers, and he was the only major black film producer to survive the passing of the silent film era. The end of the 1930s and the onset of World War II signaled the waning of Micheaux’s film career. He made his last film in 1948. Micheaux died from a heart attack in North Carolina on April 1, 1951. He was survived by his second wife Alice B. Russell, who was also his business partner and an actress in many of his films. Of the more than 30 feature films Micheaux made during his career, prints have been found of only 13. But in addition to being remembered for his maverick and innovative distribution style, Micheaux’s surviving work reveals him to have been a filmmaker of original genius.